A project is underway to give Yukoners a taste of what it might have been like to be a workhorse during the gold rush — specifically, the unfortunate horses who powered a tramway that hauled fortune-seekers’ supplies up the steepest bits of the Chilkoot pass.
And anyone is welcome to help make it happen.
The Yukon Transportation Museum and YuKonstruct have teamed up to build, from scratch, two large-scale windlasses, with the goal of having them installed at the museum later this year for visitors to use.
The community build sessions, hosted at YuKonstruct’s Makerspace, are open to the public and entirely community-driven.
The initiative is part of the museum’s desire to have more interactive exhibits that visitors can actually engage with instead of just looking at, executive director Janna Swales explained at a community build night at the Makerspace on Jan. 16. It was the second of what’s expected to be at least three build sessions at the space before the pieces are moved to the museum for assembly.
“One of the things that I really wanted to do was work on this idea of the Burns tramway, which was a really early tramway over the Chilkoot pass — not an aerial tramway, it was just a windlass,” Swales said, referring to a tramway built by Archie Burns in 1897.
“… This windlass was powered by, and I think the poignant quote is, two wretched horses just going round and round and round.”
A windlass is essentially a winch system that, using mechanical advantage, allows someone (or some horse) to move weights much heavier than they could on their own. While inspired by the Burns tramway, the windlasses being built for the museum are not replicas.
“The plan is for it to not be a reproduction but for it to be a teaching tool,” Swales said.
When completed, the windlasses are expected to pull a cart over a distance of about 50 feet across the floor of the museum. Visitors will be able to push the handles to move the cart as well as ride in the cart itself. The handles on one windlass will be easier to push but move the cart more slowly, while the handles on the other will be harder to push but move the cart more quickly.
“The cool thing about this project is that it’s creating an interactive, but it’s doubly interactive — even the making is interactive … I think that’s super cool,” Swales said.
So far, about a dozen community members have helped out on the build, welding together the metal frames on which the windlasses will sit on, cutting out wooden circles that will become the giant spools the rope will wrap around, among other things.
Even the design and engineering of the windlasses were done by a volunteer — James Stobbs, a YuKonstruct member who said blueprints for gold rush-era trams were hard to come by, and that he basically had to start from scratch.
Stobbs happened to attend a meeting early on about the project, and, despite having never worked on something of that scale before, decided to get involved.
“It seemed interesting, it seemed different … I just wanted to do something different,” Stobbs said during a break during the build night on Jan. 16.
The process so far, he said, has involved lots of internet searches, bouncing ideas off other YuKonstruct members and learning and adapting as the build progresses.
YuKonstruct’s Makerspace director, Laird Herbert, said the windlass project fits perfectly into the “grassroots, community-based spirit” fostered by makerspaces in general.
“It’s very much driven by volunteers, so a lot of what we do is respond to what members are interested in,” he said, adding that while the Makerspace is usually just for YuKonstruct members, it’s open to everyone for the windlass build nights.
At least one more build night is scheduled to take place at the YuKonstruct Makerspace on Jan. 30.
Since the project is volunteer-driven, Swales said there are no hard timelines on when the windlasses will be finished and installed — the project will progress at whatever pace manpower and motivation allows it to.
“Once you start making the community into wretched horses,” she said with a laugh, “then they just won’t do it anymore.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org